A jury has already awarded $135 million to a Southwest Georgia couple whose lake was choked by muddy runoff from a massive solar installation next door. Now the federal judge who heard the case has ordered the companies behind the project to halt any further releases — or face potential penalties.
While the companies are disputing the jury’s award, U.S. District Court Judge Clay D. Land ordered Monday that they take immediate steps to return sediment flows to levels that existed before the 100-megawatt solar array was built.
“The evidence at trial supports the conclusion that this nuisance can be abated, but successful abatement will require the commitment of adequate resources, necessary expertise, and zealous determination,” wrote Land, the judge of Georgia’s Middle District .
The installation, known as the Lumpkin Solar Facility, was built on rural land in Stewart County, just south of Columbus.
The panels were installed in 2021 through a partnership between Silicon Ranch and Walton Electric Membership Corp. Electricity from the site powers a Newton County data center owned by Meta — the parent company of Facebook and Instagram. In Georgia and other states with ample sunshine, big tech companies are turning to solar to meet their enormous energy demands and reduce their emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases.
In late April, a jury found the companies behind the project — Nashville-based solar power developer Silicon Ranch, and its contractor, Infrastructure and Energy Alternatives, Inc. (IEA) — acted negligently and with intent to cause harm by not installing sufficient erosion controls around the site.
The jury assigned $25 million in punitive damages to Silicon Ranch, and $50 million each to IEA and one of its subsidiaries, plus $10.5 million in compensatory damages against the three defendants. Westwood Professional Services Inc., the engineering firm behind the project’s erosion and sedimentation control plan, was cleared of liability.
The plaintiffs in the case, Stewart County residents Shaun and Amie Harris, live downstream from the solar arrays on a 1,630-acre property that includes a 21-acre trophy fishing lake. The lake was repeatedly stained bright red by sediment after construction began on the solar project, photos introduced as evidence in the case showed.
In his order, Land said that the jury’s sizeable award would not prevent future releases.
The new order requires the companies conduct a new hydrology study of the area; prepare an erosion, sedimentation and pollution management plan; and bolster the site’s runoff controls according to that plan. The companies must also plant permanent vegetation among the hundreds of panels on the site and hire an independent firm to sample discharges, to ensure sediment levels have returned to pre-construction levels.
The companies must also submit monthly status reports to a to-be-determined “special master,” who will oversee the process. If there is evidence of noncompliance, the judge said he could issue daily fines.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs did not comment on the judge’s order. A spokesperson for Silicon Ranch also declined to comment. In a statement, IEA’s subsidiary — IEA Constructors LLC — said it is “working diligently to remediate the site,” but did not comment on other aspects of the case.
The defendants are disputing the $135 million the jury awarded the plaintiffs.
In separate motions filed last month, attorneys for both Silicon Ranch and IEA argued that the punitive damages against each of the companies should be sharply reduced. Under Georgia law, juries are only allowed to assess penalties above a $250,000 cap if it is proven that the parties acted with intent to cause harm. Attorneys for both companies argued the evidence presented at trial did not support that conclusion.
Silicon Ranch and IEA’s attorneys also said the damages awarded to clean up the lake and compensate plaintiffs for their loss of enjoyment should be slashed. As an alternative, the parties have asked for a new trial.
The judge has not ruled on their motions, but he has placed a hold on the jury’s award while he weighs the defendants’ arguments.
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